Jean-Pascal Imsand: Photographer, Swiss, (1960-1994) –
Lorraine Anne Davis is a curator-appraiser of fine art photography and a board member of the Fondation Jean-Pascal Imsand. Her lecture, The Famous, The Infamous and the Anonymous, A History of Portraiture in Photography will be given at the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon, February 4, 2011 to accompany the CCP exhibition FACE TO FACE: 150 Years of Photographic Portraiture
Gifted with exceptional visual talents, Jean-Pascal Imsand rose to prominence in the European world of fineart photography, only to end his own life at the age of 34. He left behind a legacy that has continued to grow making this master photographer—with his oeuvre of poignant documentary work and thought-provoking surrealist montages—a significant contributor t the visual culture of his native Switzerland.
Born in the French speaking city of Lausanne, Switzerland,in 1960, Jean-Pascal Imsand displayed a potent visual gift from a young age, spending endless hours with pencil and paper, sketching and drawing, sometimes from photographs—exposed to the photographic image early on by his father who was a commercial photographer. Jean-Pascal later recalled how as a boy he always had to be mindful of the prints that were laid out to dry throughout the house. After secondary school, Imsand attended the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, where he studied lithography, etching and graphic design. In the early 1980s, at the Atelier Pietro Sarto in the town of Saint-Prex, in the Canton of Vaud, he assisted Jon Goodman, who was at the Atelier printing dustgrained photogravures for the portfolio Edward Steichen: The Early Years,1900 –1927, as well as a number of Paul Strand images for the Aperture Foundation.
Although the Atelier did not teach photography, the printers often produced photo-based etchings and lithographs, and it seemed natural for Imsand to eventually move from drawing to printmaking to photography. Initially he hesitated to take up photography, partly because of the idea of working in his father’s shadow. But the young man’s visual perception was already exceptionally well developed, as evidenced by his drawings and etchings, and this vision would certainly translate perfectly into the photographic medium. Consequently, he was encouraged to pursue photography by two of his mentors, Charles Henri Favrod, the founding director of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne—Switzerland’s first photography museum—and Edmond Quinche, his lithography teacher at Atelier Pietro Sarto. Imsand’s intuitive understanding of the serendipitous nature of hand-inked printing plates, coupled with his insistence on fulfilling his own particular artistic vision, served him well when he moved from the Atelier to the darkroom. Already a master at one craft, he soon became a master of another, rendering in silver what he had previously done in ink.
By 1985, Imsand was a full-time photographer, actively exhibiting in galleries and museums and working on commercial assignments. Illustrative of his unusually rapid development, in 1988 he won the coveted Grand Prix Européen de la Photographie at Arles—the top award in Europe for fine art photography. Unlike most other photographers who work both in fine art and commercial photography, with Imsand there was never a distinction between the two branches. Dieter Bachmann, the editor of du —Switzerland’s famous cultural magazine—recalled that “Jean-Pascal was one of the countless photographers to call at the offices…[his photographs] instantly stood out among the conventional and fashionable work we saw everyday.“ Over time, an intense relationship developed between the magazine and the photographer, “…a friendship of such deep mutual respect that over the next six years five issues would bear the stamp of Jean-Pascal’s photographs.“
In 1986, after finishing a commercial assignment in a theatre, Imsand returned to his darkroom to develop the film and make contact sheets. While checking his negatives, he suddenly became aware of the face of a woman—he immediately recognized her as someone unique. Although he had never met Sabina Scullari, she soon became his muse and within one year they were married. Using his wife as a model in his fine art work as well as in his commercial assignments, he made thousands of photographs of her, culminating in four pictorial essays published between 1990 and 1992 and a number of sensitively sequenced personal albums.
In 1989, Imsand and Sabina moved from Lausanne to Zürich—Switzerland’scenter for both business and culture—where commercial work and exhibition opportunities were more readily available to him.
Although achieving a definite measure of fame and success as a photographer during his lifetime, Imsand’s most lasting legacy is undoubtedly his unique ability to expose to the viewer inner visions that, when manifested into physical photographic prints, seem to reflect our own, often hard-to-express throughts and feelings. He had the uncanny ability to make photographs that consistently evoked emotional responses without using obvious visual cues. Instead he used everyday views that imperceptively took on deeper meanings: a wind-blown curtain, railway tracks seen through a rain splattered window, an empty rail station….
Imsand was a master in the darkroom, where his skills exquisitely expressed his artistic and technical virtuosity. In the tradition of classic printmaking, he pushed and pulled the darks and the highlights, revealing or, in turn, obscuring elements to achieve his vision. Perhaps his most popular images were his montages, which often had political content, showing in surrealistic, dream-like scenes a future that might be: the Alps engulfed by ocean waves; Manhattan’s Flat Iron Building tilted like a forgotten headstone, sinking into the sea; escalators moving through clouds…. The montages were made using individual negatives exposed in succession. Working from a single enlarger, he did not edition his prints and if he made more than one print, each was a variation on the theme, which of course resulted in every print being unique.
As demonstrated by the tragic circumstances of his premature death, Imsand knew all too well the effects of pain. He knew that emotional torment could tear the soul open, uncovering deep-seated truths. He used this understanding when he photographed the drug abusers of the Letten. From the early 1980s, the city leaders of Zürich had turned a blind eye to the hard-drug users congregating in a small park behind the Swiss National Museum. Eventually the park became a free-for-all, attracting dealers and addicts from all over Europe. It became infamously known as Needle Park. In 1992, there was a crackdown and the police went in with tear-gas. But the addicts just moved, finding another haven—the Letten—an area surrounding an abandoned train station facing the Limmat River. In one of his most profound series, Imsand turned his focus on this dark corner of the city—not as a voyeur, but as someone with deep empathy for the lost souls that were drawn to it. His images of the Letten were not just pictures of a dark period in Zürich’s recent history—they were both emotionally revealing and strongly documentary, showing all-too-clearly the government’s abandonment of its difficult children and puncturing the Swiss sense of perfection by revealing the failure of the citizens who refused to recognize the problem until it was too late.
For a viewer looking at Imsand’s collected works it becomes clear that one of his recurring themes was trains and tracks. Perhaps nowhere as prevalent in Europe as in Switzerland are the screeching of brakes, the incessant rumble of wheels over tracks, the echoes of announcements of arrivals and departures, the constant ebb and flow of masses of bodies running to and fro—in Imsand’s mind all this seems to have been a representation of the fast-paced, relentless passage of life itself. It is more than merely poignant that when he decided to end his life, he chose to do so by throwing himself in front of a moving train.
Imsand’s death was a tragedy to those who were left in the wake of his absence. It is profoundly sad to lose a husband, a friend—an artist who was yet to reach the peak of his ability. Ultimately, Imsand’s widow and his close friends have come to accept that it was his choice to make. As painful as it was for Sabina, she knew that life for Jean-Pascal had become much too intense. Always sensitive, he had become hyper-sensitive. He heard everything, felt everything. He did, for a short time, take medication, but could not accept the dullness and lack of depth the drugs imposed upon him. He had seen such ghosts in the Letten and feared losing his own creative drive.
Sabina recalled to the author: “Jean-Pascal knew that something was terribly wrong. But those of us closest to him never suspected how impossible life had become for him. His decision was, to him, inevitable. In the last year of his life, he began to re-assess his photography and was considering moving into films. He stopped photographing and began to give his unfinished commercial assignments and commissions to his colleagues. Two or three days before his death, while we were standing in the kitchen, talking, he told me nonchalantly that I now had to be the one to look after everything.”
The Fondation Jean-Pascal Imsand has desposited the artist’s archive at the Fotostiftung Schweiz (Swiss Foundation of Photography) in Winterthur for safekeeping, where researchers, curators and other professionals can study the works by appointment.
Imsand is currently represented by ArteF Gallery, Splügenstrasse 11, 8002 Zürich, Switzerland
A retrospective exhibition contaning 198 original works and an accompanying 192-page catalogue with in-depth essays and a chronology is available to museums, schools and non-commercial galleries. Contact www.jeanpascalimsand.org for further information.
The catalogue is available in English, German, French and Italian:
Jean Pascal Imsand: Photographer
Fondation Jean-Pascal Imsand
Lars Müller Publishers, Baden, Switzerland
All images © 2000 Fondation Jean-Pascal Imsand / ProLitteris
Courtesy Fotostiftung Schweiz